President Donald Trump has been careful — some would say timid — in his use of the Defense Production Act as the country battles the spread of the novel coronavirus. He hesitated to invoke it when there was a clamor to increase the supply of badly needed face masks and other personal protective equipment. He used it to increase the stocks of swabs, but not for the reagent chemicals that are required for widespread diagnostic testing.
Yet when it came to beef burgers and chicken nuggets, Mr. Trump made his priorities clear in his unsettling rush to invoke federal emergency powers to keep open meat processing plants — even as these facilities have become hot spots for the deadly virus.
Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order that classifies meat plants as essential infrastructure under the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to control the production and distribution of products and supplies during a national emergency. The order mandating meat plants stay open came days after the chairman of the board of Tyson Foods warned in a full-page ad in The Washington Post and other newspapers that “the food supply chain is breaking” and following what the Wall Street Journal described as private conversations with executives of major meat-processing companies.
Over the past several weeks, at least 20 major meat suppliers have closed down as increasing numbers of workers fell ill with COVID-19 and others decided to stay home because of the fear of becoming infected. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union on Tuesday estimated that at least 20 workers have died and at least 5,000 have been directly affected by the virus.
There is the promise — from both administration officials and those in the meat industry — of additional protections for workers in the way of protective gear and workplace guidelines. But given the realities of these giant meat-processing plants — in which workers are jammed together in shoulder-to-shoulder processing lines — the industry’s poor track record in looking out for its workers, and lax regulation from the Trump administration, there is reason for concern.
What guarantees are there that workers who already are in a difficult and dangerous environment won’t get sick? So far, there are no mandatory safety rules, only guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. State and local authorities, which have had the ability to order businesses to close in the interests of public health, would no longer have that clout over the meat plants as the federal government asserts its authority.
Equally worrisome is the apparent aim of the administration to try to shield the companies from legal liability in cases of workplace exposure to the coronavirus. That fits with a larger effort by Republicans in Congress to broadly indemnify companies against lawsuits. The right course of action — and not just for meat plants — is for companies to reimagine places of work, putting in place the protections that will allow people to safely do their jobs. That — not coercing people to go to work — is how the economy should be restarted.